Lionel Messi was not considered the best free-kick taker in Barcelona's La Masia

Barcelona v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: First Leg

In terms of the greatest free-kick takers of all time, Lionel Messi is now right up towards the top of the list.

He might even be the best free-kick taker that football has ever seen.

A free-kick is almost as good as a penalty for the Barcelona forward - in fact, his record from the penalty spot isn’t the best, so a free-kick might even be better - and the number he’s successfully converted in recent seasons is mind-blowing.

Following his latest free-kick goal against Real Valladolid earlier this week, it was revealed that Messi has now scored five more free-kicks than any CLUB in Europe’s top five leagues over the past five seasons.

The 32-year-old has scored 20 free-kicks during that time. Juventus are second on the list with 15, while AS Roma are third with 13.

Messi has also scored 27 free-kicks since the start of the 2012/13 season, which is 12 more than the player in second place on the list, Miralem Pjanic.

These stats show that, at this moment in time, Messi is on a totally different player to any other footballer when it comes to free-kicks.

But Messi hasn’t always been a free-kick wizard, it turns out.

Diego Maradona was the man who is often credited with helping Messi become a free-kick master back in 2009, following a frustrating training session with the Argentina national team.

"I saw Diego coming, he took him by the shoulder and said: 'Little Leo, little Leo, come here, man. Let's try it again.' It was like a teacher with his pupil," Maradona’s assistant, Fernando Signorini, was quoted as telling La Nacion by Goal.

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi (C) str

"He continued: 'Put the ball here and listen to me: don't take your foot away from the ball so fast because otherwise it won't know what you want.' He then stroked the ball with his left foot straight into the angle of the net, with Messi's face full of admiration."

It seems this may have been a turning point for Messi who, remarkably, wasn’t even one of the top two free-kick takers when he was in Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy.

According to Roger Giribet, an ex-teammate of Messi’s in Barça’s youth system, two players were ahead of the Argentine for set-pieces.

"Victor Vazquez, who was amazing,” Giribet told Goal, “and the left-footed Juanjo Clausi used to take them. Messi almost never."

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But what happened to these two players who can boast that, once upon a time, they were even better than Messi at free-kicks?

Victor Vazquez

Vazquez, who is six months older than Messi, played three times for Barcelona’s first team but, ultimately, wasn’t quite good enough and was offloaded to Club Brugge by Pep Guardiola in 2011.

However, he can at least boast that he scored one senior goal for the Catalan giants, netting against Rubin Kazan in the Champions League.

Barcelona v Rubin Kazan - UEFA Champions League

The former Spain Under-16 international spent four years in Belgium before moving on to Cruz Azul in Mexico in 2016. He then had a year with Toronto FC before moving on to Qatar-based Al-Arabi and Umm Salal, where he plies his trade today.

Vazquez hasn’t lost his free-kick ability since leaving Camp Nou. He scored two free-kicks for Club Brugge in a 2-2 draw against Anderlecht during the 2014-15 campaign.

And he also netted this under-the-wall free-kick while playing for Toronto against Columbus Crew in 2017.

“It’s an amazing goal, everybody says ‘genius’, but in my mind it’s because all the walls are jumping,” the Spaniard said after scoring that goal. “Now, if I have a free-kick, they for sure will not jump. I will try another thing because I’m always thinking.”

Juanjo Clausi

Unlike Vazquez, Clausi’s career never really took off, unfortunately.

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(Credit: Infobae)

The forward, who is a few weeks younger than Messi, played for Barcelona’s youth team up to Under-19 level before being offloaded to Catarroja CF in July 2006.

The former La Masia starlet has spent his career playing in Spain’s lower leagues and is currently on the books of Paterna FC, who compete in Spain’s third tier.

According to Planet Football, Clausi begun studying electromechanical maintenance in 2015 and attributed his slide down the divisions on his lack of a reliable agent.

But like Vazquez, Clausi also retained his ability to strike a sweet free-kick, as this video shows… (click play on the black video window).

Furthermore, he will always have the honour of saying that he grew up playing alongside the GOAT.

“When he (Messi) came we were amazed to see that such a small boy had that quality,” Clausi is quoted as telling Infobae in 2016. “In fact, I remember that when he arrived, he was taken down to Infant B because of his height, but soon after he was taken with us, it was phenomenal.”

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In another interview with YoSoyNoticia, Clausi reminisced about winning a youth tournament in Italy while being coached by the late Tito Vilanova: “I was the top scorer and Messi was chosen as the best player.

“I keep that picture of the two of us posing with the trophy, and now see where Leo is and know that I could share that moment with him…not everyone can say that.”

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